Gender Roles & Social Hypocrisy: 'The Girl in Tails'

Gender roles Girl in Tails
Einar Axelsson and Magda Holm in 'The Girl in Tails'

Gender roles & social hypocrisy in silent era effort 'The Girl in Tails'

Poor Katja Kock (Magda Holm)! She spends most of her time serving others: sewing and mending for her brother (Erik Zetterström), humoring her grouchy father (Nils Aréhn), and tutoring Count Ludwig (Einar Axelsson) in his studies.

Her brother gets all the attention and all the new clothes, while Katja has to be content to look like a scrubwoman in her ragged old dresses. When the Count passes his exams – thanks to Katja – he plans a summer party. Katja's father refuses to buy her any new clothes for the occasion, so she breaks all social conventions by showing up wearing her brother's formal attire. Then the fun begins.

Karin Swanström's The Girl in Tails / Flickan i frack, adapted by Hjalmar Bergman and Ivar Johansson from Bergman's novel, was screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Adding to this comedy of societal hypocrisy is the Count's snooty aristocratic family who are shocked by the appearance of a woman dressed as a man. Katja smokes a cigar and even goes so far as to dance with another woman! The matriarch of the family, the Widow Hyltenius (played by director Swanström), is so horrified that she slaps Katja's face.

But by now Katja and the Count have fallen in love. He takes her to his country estate where she eventually works as a maid until she apologizes to Widow Hyltenius and the matter is settled.

'The Girl in Tails': A film with an 'anachronistic social consciousness'

For me, the impact of The Girl in Tails lay in its anachronistic social consciousness. The theme of how much people used to care about what high society thought of them serves as a striking contrast to today's culture. I also enjoyed the subtlety of the comedy. The Girl in Tails' humor came out in the witty dialogue, instead of relying on physical slapstick.

There are many fine moments in this droll comedy: At the party, as Katja is being labelled “indecent” for her male attire, the camera pans to a high-society lady with her plunging neckline to illustrate the double standard. Also, the school's headmaster (Georg Blomstedt) is an irascible old coot who talks to himself out loud so everyone can hear his insults. And adding to the sexual confusion, the Count is snuggling with Katja when they arrive at his estate, eliciting more raised eyebrows by his family.

As a plus, The Girl in Tails' scenic photography at the lakeside, courtesy of cinematographer Ragnar Westfelt, is sharp and framed beautifully, while the film's musical accompaniment was performed by the always fabulous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. In one sequence, they were playing the same instruments as those seen on screen, thus perfectly blending the two mediums. This is what makes a “silent” film such an incredible sensory experience.

The Girl in Tails / Flickan i frack (1926). Dir.: Karin Swanström. Scr.: Hjalmar Bergman and Ivar Johansson, from Bergman's novel. Cast: Magda Holm, Erik Zetterström, Nils Aréhn, Einar Axelsson, Karin Swanström, Georg Blomstedt, Carina May, Lotten Olsson, Anna-Lisa Baude, Gösta Gustafson.

Note: Sometimes, Flickan i frack's English-language title The Girl in Tails loses its initial article, being referred to as simply Girl in Tails. That's the English-language title found on the IMDb.

Einar Axelsson and Magda Holm The Girl in Tails photo via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

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